We've come to expect that otherwise ordinary citizens behind a wheel and traffic do not a happy mix make. Perfectly civil people lose their ability to have compassion for others. But oddly enough, when the barrier of the car is lifted, human beings prove they do love one another instinctively and compassionately.
Look no further than public transportation to see how this love and compassion are honored elsewhere on the road.
A woman boarding a bus, struggling to lift a baby carriage, is apt to be quickly aided by another passenger.
Several times I've seen passengers give other passengers their bus passes when those without the fare were in dire straits.
Bus riders, seeing people behind running for the bus as it pulls away, call out and ask the driver to wait, stop, or they'll stand in the doorway and not move until a runner catches up.
Bus riders often put other people first, empathizing with the person running desperate to make it.
The rest of us don't mind the wait; we've all been that person running or the person standing in the doorway. We don't heckle or complain when the bus waits for a runner; we nod, relieved, silently cheering when the person bounds breathless up the bus steps.
Passengers queue up at buses. We don't push, yell, curse, or complain, even if – perhaps especially if – it is particularly cold, or wet, or miserable outside. We chat with one another, tell jokes, respect one another's silence. We commiserate, compare notes, smile at one another's children. Even when we annoy one another, we rise above our own irritation.
But something happens when people drive; a sense of entitlement takes over as the driver talks on her cellphone and drives through the red light in a school zone. A sense of self-importance takes hold of the driver as his BMW rushes to pass in the wrong lane, indifferent to the harm his actions may cause.
The immediate honking and cursing when a car doesn't instantly surge forward at the changing of a light is unnecessary. So, too, the bizarre rage from drivers if a car slows to let a passenger cross in a crosswalk.
Are bus riders kinder people than car drivers? Or do they become just as impatient and self-centered when they themselves drive? What is at play here? Is it the isolating nature of driving a car, where the illusion of sovereignty obtains? Is it fear of some kind that pushes drivers to ignore laws and show contempt for the safety and the well-being of others? And, if so, is this a fear of losing their place on the road – or a deeper fear of losing their place in the social order?
Our car culture has been destroying us since it began: destroying our environment, destroying our sense of community, splintering our cities, desecrating our countryside. Riding the bus seems to restore something inside of us.
No matter how fast we drive, or how many places we go, or how important we pride ourselves on being, what we really need from one another is love and warmth. Without these, we become furious and lonely. Without these, we are cold and alone in a world that hears us no more than we hear the world.
The other morning I was cold, really cold, after waiting a long time for a bus. I sat down in a two-person seat by myself, relieved to be on the warm bus, but still shivering. A large man sat down beside me, and the sense of relief from his warmth was wonderful. I didn't need to be ahead of anyone, and I wasn't afraid of trailing anyone. Being beside someone was grace, nothing more, nothing less.
Jampa Williams is a dedicated user of public transportation.